Middle East update: November 8 2018


Syrian journalist 

Turkey and Russia had concluded an agreement on Sept. 17 to establish a buffer zone between the armed opposition regions and the regime-controlled areas in Idlib. According to this agreement that entered into force Oct. 15, this zone would run 15 to 20 kilometers deep and would be free of heavy weapons, including artilleries, tanks and rocket launchers.

Yet Syrian regime forces and allied militias continue to shell armed opposition areas with cannons and rifles in Idlib province, Hama’s northern countryside, Aleppo’s western countryside and Turkmen Mountain in the Latakia countryside.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) responded by targeting regime locations in east Idlib Nov. 2.

Most of Khateb’s sources appear to be rebels so naturally they blame the government for violating the ceasefire. But even if you take a different view of who’s to blame, the fact that the ceasefire is being violated, repeatedly, is obviously not good.

The Syrian army has reportedly (according to Syrian state media) rescued 19 Druze civilians who were taken hostage by ISIS back in July during a rampage in and around the city of Suwayda. The rescue took place during an army operation northeast of Palmyra. ISIS had taken 30 hostages, but released six and executed one. The rest are believed to have escaped prior to this rescue.


Fighting in Hudaydah is reportedly threatening medical facilities in the eastern neighborhoods of the city that are desperately needed to treat wounded and stick/starving residents. A group of international aid agencies called on Thursday for an end to the fighting in the city, but the Saudi-led coalition shows no indication of letting up and the Houthi rebels in the city say they will not surrender. The United Nations, which has been hoping to give peace talks another try by the end of November, now says it’s going to try to organize something by the end of the year. Even that seems like a long shot.

With some 14 million Yemenis in critical need of food, the World Food Programme says it plans to double its food shipments into Yemen. But it won’t be enough if the fighting continues. At Foreign Policy, activists Radhya Almutawakel and Abdulrasheed Alfaqih describe the deliberate economic and humanitarian war the Saudis and company are, with US support, waging on the Yemeni people:

Saudi crimes in Yemen are not limited to regular and intentional bombing of civilians in violation of international humanitarian law. By escalating the war and destroying essential civilian infrastructure, Saudi Arabia is also responsible for the tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians who have died from preventable disease and starvation brought on by the war. The United Nations concluded that blockadeshave had “devastating effects on the civilian population” in Yemen, as Saudi and Emirati airstrikes have targeted Yemen’s food production and distribution, including the agricultural sector and the fishing industry.

Meanwhile, the collapse of Yemen’s currency due to the war has prevented millions of civilians from purchasing the food that exists in markets. Food prices have skyrocketed, but civil servants haven’t received regular salaries in two years. Yemenis are being starved to death on purpose, with starvation of civilians used by Saudi Arabia as a weapon of war.

In response to the crisis, the Trump administration is reportedly kicking around the idea of…designating the Houthis a terrorist organization. Which would not only stretch the concept of “terrorist organization” past the breaking point–if the definition of “terrorist” is now “anybody we don’t like” then the word is meaningless–but would actually make it harder to end the war and to provide humanitarian relief to Yemenis whose lives depend upon it.


Turkish inflation continues to run rampant–another 2.67 percent in October, bringing the yearly total to over 25 percent–and the culprit now seems to be increasing food prices. Turkish economist Mustafa Sönmez argues that those rising food prices are caused in part by agricultural policies adopted decades ago that have driven domestic food producers out of the business and forced Turkey to become a net food importer:

The factors behind the decline of Turkish agriculture can be traced back to ill-advised policies in the 1980s and 1990s. Public enterprises that significantly propped up the sector prior to 1980 were privatized on the grounds they were a burden on the treasury. Similarly, subsidies were reduced on the grounds that agricultural support purchases contributed to central budget deficits. An agriculture law adopted in April 2006 appeared to legally guarantee support to farmers, but that was not the case on the ground. According to the law, funds of at least 1% of GDP must be allocated to supporting farmers, but according to Turkey’s Agricultural Chambers Union, the amount of support has remained at only 0.56% of GDP.

The decreased support condemned agricultural output to trail behind industry, which in turn meant that agriculture ceased to be a source of livelihood for a significant portion of the populace. In 2000, Turkey’s agricultural sector employed 7.7 million people, or nearly 36% of an overall 21.5 million people. In 2018, the overall figure was up at 29.2 million people, but the share of agriculture was down at 19.5%. The number of people employed in agriculture has decreased by 2 million to 5.7 million in 17 years.


A car bomb in western Mosul on Thursday killed at least five people and wounded 14 more. Presumably it was ISIS’s doing.


The Jordanian government is reportedly working with the US and Russia to dismantle the Rukban displaced persons camp in southern Syria and return its residents either to their homes in eastern Syria or to rebel-held parts of northern Syria. Rukban is located close to the US-Syrian rebel base at Tanf and the people there have been in desperate humanitarian straits for some time. The Jordanians have been worried that the camp may be infiltrated by ISIS fighters who could try to cross the border and infiltrate Jordan.


Gaza’s health ministry says that Israeli soldiers shot and killed one Palestinian man near the Gaza fence line on Thursday. The Israelis say their forces fired on a group of men who attempted to “sabotage” the fence.

Gunning somebody down for mucking around with a fence might seem like overkill, but it’s pretty much par for the course in the Occupied Territories. Consider that Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is pushing hard for legal changes that would make it easier for Israeli military tribunals to sentence Palestinian convicts to death. Right now tribunals have to vote unanimously to impose the death penalty, but the bill Lieberman is championing would reduce that to a simple majority.

Israeli police say they have enough evidence to charge Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyer, David Shimron, on corruption and influence peddling, related to his role in a scheme to get the Israeli government to buy submarines and naval patrol boats from the German firm ThyssenKrupp. Netanyahu, who is under investigation on a couple of corruption allegations himself, is not believed to be directly implicated in this one. It’s unclear if Israeli prosecutors will follow the police recommendation and bring Shimron up on charges.


The Trump administration’s plans to hold a summit in Washington to unveil its anti-Iran “Arab NATO” plan in January–which were already imperiled by the ongoing Saudi-Qatar diplomatic crisis–are really on the rocks now over the Jamal Khashoggi killing. In particular, it’s unclear how the administration could invite Mohammad bin Salman to attend the summit without embarrassing itself and outraging a lot of other people.

Perhaps because of pressure over Khashoggi and over Yemen in the US Congress, the Saudis are taking some steps to maybe diversify their arms buying away from the US. Riyadh has reportedly contracted with a Spanish firm, Navantia, to build several new ships for the Saudi navy, and Reuters reported on Thursday that it’s looking to invest $1 billion in the state-owned South African defense firm Denel, including a large minority stake in a partnership between Denel and the German firm Rheinmetall. The latter deal would be intended to build up Saudi Arabian Military Industries, the kingdom’s own arms manufacturer.


Analysts seem to think that the Iranian economy is in a stronger position to ride out US sanctions now than it was back when the Bush and Obama administrations were levying sanctions against Iran several years ago. Which doesn’t mean the resumption of those sanctions isn’t going to be painful for Iranians, particularly if the Trump administration is able to achieve its seemingly impossible goal of cutting Iranian oil exports all the way to zero. Its decision to issue eight waivers to oil sanctions on Monday (ostensibly to avoid an oil price spike) would appear to undermine that goal, but maybe not. At Bloomberg, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj argues that those waivers aren’t meant to ease the impact of the sanctions, they’re meant to make it easier for the Trump administration to get what it wants in the long run:

It should be welcome news for Iran that the Trump administration has granted eight countries Significant Reduction Exemptions (SREs) from U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic. These allow Iran to sustain oil exports at levels higher than many analysts had predicted when Trump first announced his withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May. Iran’s exports may remain above 1.1 million barrels per day.

At first glance, it would appear that the Trump administration’s decision is merely a recognition that suppressing Iranian exports too aggressively would drive up oil prices while also compromising American diplomatic relationships worldwide. But a closer examination of the waivers suggests that the Trump administration has deployed its concessions tactically. The inclusion of China, Italy, and Greece among the waiver recipients will complicate the politics around Iran’s oil exports, and undermine the broader international effort to defy the extraterritoriality of U.S. sanctions.

In an interview with BBC Persian on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that it will be Iran’s fault if the Iranian people struggle to get enough food due to sanctions:

QUESTION: You said that there are waivers for – there are exemptions for medicine and for agricultural imports, but the issue is with the banking transfers. BBC sees the facts – we investigated about this – that these sanctions that are already in place are affecting that part of imports for medicine and agricultural and also food. And do you mind – I mean, do you mind mentioning more details about your efforts to make sure that medicine and food could be exempted from all the sanctions?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Of course. Not only are the transactions themselves exempted – that is, the transactions in medicine, for example – but the financial transactions connected to that activity also are authorized. There’s nothing that prevents this from happening in the sanctions that have been reimposed, and so we are confident that this process will work properly.

QUESTION: But then practically, when the process goes ahead, and if you see facts —

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, we’re going to work to do two things: that things that are sanctioned don’t happen, and things that are permitted to happen are permissible, and can in fact happen.

Well, remember, just so you remember, the leadership has to make a decision that they want their people to eat. They have to make a decision that they want to use their wealth to import medicine, and not use their wealth to fund Qasem Soleimani’s travels around the Middle East with – causing death and destruction. That’s the Iranian Government’s choice on how to use Iranian wealth. If they choose to squander, if the Iranian leadership chooses to spoil it, if they choose to use it in a way that doesn’t benefit the Iranian people, I’m very confident the Iranian people will take a response that tries to fix that themselves as well.

Pompeo knows that this is bullshit but it’s good propaganda. Exempting humanitarian goods from sanctions doesn’t matter. Even exempting the financial transactions related to the purchase of humanitarian goods doesn’t matter. What matters is that US sanctions have so terrified international banks that they’ll simply refuse to do any business with Iran on anything regardless of whether or not it might be technically allowed.

If there’s even a slim risk that the line of credit a bank extends Iran for buying food or medicine might on the margins trip some US sanction–or if the bank merely perceives there to be some potential risk even if there actually isn’t any–then that bank won’t extend it, period. That’s what happened the last time these sanctions were imposed and it’s what will undoubtedly happen this time around unless the Trump administration–which has so far shown no concern for the wellbeing of the Iranian people whatsoever–was so careful in reimposing sanctions that it fixed this very obvious problem. That seems unlikely to say the least.

Pompeo later said that “it’s not our intention” that Iranians starve because of these sanctions, and that’s a lie too. The goal here is to make life in Iran so unbearable that the Iranian people revolt and overthrow the Islamic Republic. Of course starving the Iranian people is intentional. The administration’s entire strategy depends on it.


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